By Matt Hickman
Just one of the many dubious distinctions that Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s radical vetoes will inflict upon the state was made official Monday afternoon as the Alaska State Council on the Arts closed its doors permanently, making Alaska the only state in the union to not have an arts council.
Scores of well-wishers and media were on hand in the parking lot of the council’s office in Mountain View for what was treated as a funeral service, even as workers inside bid farewell to their jobs and those outside fretted about the future of art and culture in the state.
“I like to be an optimist, but I can’t believe it’s over,” said Teresa K. Pond, director of Cyrano’s Theater. “What we’re doing today is showing support for how vitally critical the arts are for Alaska. It’s a small but mighty and critical piece of the puzzle. It’s a small piece of the budget, but it’s a mighty contribution to the community.”
Pond stood in the mourning procession next to Sandy Harper, who founded Cyrano’s along with her late husband Jerry Harper. In recent years there had been some friction between the old and new guard of Cyrano’s as the theater moved from its downtown location to a new one on the east side, but on a day like this, those differences melted away.
“One of the very important roles the Council does is not only supporting local art, but that support of your state gives you leverage to get outside funding,” Harper explained. “That’s key. You can’t apply for (federal grants) without support of your state. It’s like throwing away millions of dollars in (national) support. It’s the same with the Medicaid challenge.”
Pond said the loss of the Council will make it more difficult for her theater to put on shows.
“It’s going to be very challenging. What does it look like at a national level if your own state isn’t showing support for art for the citizens of the state trying to tell the stories of the state?” Pond said. “It doesn’t look real good to have the national eye see that Alaska doesn’t want to support its own artists. Of course that’s not true — everyone wants to support the arts, which is why the budget cuts are so devastating. They’re not speaking for us. No one on either side wants the arts to go away.”
The crowd waited outside the office, leaving flowers and banners and doodles in sidewalk chalk showing gratitude for the work the council has done over the years, as well as proclaiming a resolve to continue to fight for the future of art in Alaska.
Finally, however, ASCA board member Jeffry Silverman came out to tell the crowd that the workers preferred not to come out.
“This has been their last day; they’re very emotional and not really ready to come out,” Silverman said. “The staff wants you to know they deeply appreciate your support, but this is their last day and they’re doing some work with the Department of Education staff and they want you to know they don’t really want to come out and talk about it right now… This is a dark day for Alaska.”
Local musicians Emma Hill and Kat Moore performed for the ceremony and Moore wrapped things up with her parody of Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ with a chorus that went:
Bye, bye, Alaska will not survive
Trade education for pump stations and our state will run dry
And them good ol’ boys will bank while just telling lies
Singin’ this will be the way Alaska dies
This will be the way Alaska dies
Moore, who is part of the wildly popular Super Saturated Sugar Strings, said her original plan was to perform the Alaska State Song, with lyrics as they are, as a dirge.
“I felt like singing it operatically over minor key changes… but I thought, that could be kind of an overwhelming to come out to on your last day of work,” Moore said. “Tuesday morning I woke up, sent another round of e-mails, another round of calls — got a lot of voicemails — and at the end of it, I just needed to practice my piano and thought, nah, I need to write. There’s just so much sadness and anger.”
Moore said it is particularly infuriating to think that important organizations like the Council for the Arts is being shuttered in an effort to dole out a $3,000 PFD.
“I love this community, I love our arts community and this feels like a giant ‘fuck you’ from the governor. Like, $3,000 for a PFD would bring me so much value. I’d love a $3,000 PFD every year, but if we are trading an ideal utopian society for me to potentially buy a fancy piano, the fiscal reward is not worth trading a society.”
Moore said the Council has been vitally important to the success of the Sugar Strings.
“The music market here is its own weird nucleus. But what ASCA has done is garner funding so we can go to things like the Conference on the Arts in Eugene. We got to go down there and meet other booking professionals and meet with people who run other venues, much like the (Anchorage Concert Association). Connecting with organizations like that allows us to put on better shows, get bigger, more sustainable income. I love music enough to play bar gigs every night, but the reality is I put a lot of poetic effort into what we do,” Moore said. “It feels dramatic to say we’ll get a PFD to trade everything, but the Legislature was able to pass a balanced budget and not completely compromise the PFD, and to look at that and then go, ‘no, I don’t value safety and welfare for the most vulnerable people, we don’t value art, don’t value seniors — I don’t want to leave this state, it’s home — but it says my representatives don’t care about what I do and what I bring to the state. That intrinsic philosophy is where it hurts and the sadness and fear comes from wondering, if the entertainment industry tanks when the economy tanks, will I lose freelance teaching jobs? I feel really hurt and insulted by the fact that we don’t seem valued.”
Some argue that it’s not the job of any government entity to supplement the arts. It’s an argument Pond has heard plenty of times before.
“It’s simply not true. Every innovation from the dawn of time has had government support,” Pond said. “Villagers sitting around sitting around cave paintings back in the day — that would have been called government support. How do you think we got the Sistine Chapel without government support of art?”
Some came dressed specifically for a funeral, including Fairbanks resident and a member of the Council’s Visual Arts Committee, Sheryl Reily, who wore all black with a veil. She was accompanied by another woman expressing her protest with a vow of silence, along with a hat, the handkerchief face covering of an outlaw and a shirt that quoted the line attributed to Queen Victoria: “Beware of artists; they mix with all classes (and are therefore most dangerous).”
“I think people came to express their loss and grief and also to celebrate the accomplishments of the Alaska Council on the Arts. Their reach has been raf and wide. They’ve done tremendous things. They’ve been the face of art and culture in the state,” Reily said. “I really don’t know how and why it’s come to this. I think certain groups have been singled out because they’re a disenfranchised group or they’re voices of dissent.”
Not all was lost on the mourners, however.
Pond believes there’s still hope for change in the legislative process.
“Cyrano’s is actively interested in discussions and we’re ready to sit at the table with anyone to work on long-term solutions,” she said. “None of the art groups should be hit like this. All I know is we need to work together.”
For Moore, the dire situation is kind of a troubadour’s dream — an opportunity to write and perform protest songs about things happening in one’s own backyard.
“I thought about that in this moment… to connect with (Don McLean’s) original, as well and to think about music as a way to express ourselves. I just wrote it for myself because I was so incredibly angry,” Moore said. “It’s also a way for people to connect — singing together. Even if it’s over sad topics, it’s important for everyone to be engaged in the fight.”